Without James Brown, I wouldn’t have a job.
Popular music would be unrecognizable. There’d be no R&B, soul, funk, disco, or hip-hop as we know them. And the world would be a colder, lonelier place.
Mick Jagger knows this, of course. That’s why he coughed up the cash to produce “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” the second Brown-themed film he’s produced this year. (The first, the biopic “Get On Up,” took some factual liberties with Brown’s life, but was generally well received, nonetheless.) Jagger approached both of these projects with the obvious love and zeal of a fan. But he also knows full well that he is forever indebted to Brown, and that his Caucasian interpretation of the Godfather of Soul’s moves still sits at the heart of the Rolling Stones’ appeal, as it has from the beginning.
The Alex Gibney-directed “Mr. Dynamite,” which debuts at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO and continues through early November, offers an often startling warts-and-all portrait of Brown, whose capacity for the heroic was mirrored by an equal capacity for cruelty, violence and emotional abuse toward those closest to him. Brown, abandoned by his parents when he was very young, is in many ways the archetype of the self-made American man. He pulled himself from the grasp of poverty, made a name for himself in the midst of rampant racism, went on to do for popular music what Miles Davis did for jazz – that is, reinvent it a handful of times – and became a rallying point for the civil rights movement in this country.
He also reportedly was involved in more than his fair share of domestic abuse incidents, had significant problems with drugs, alienated much of his fan base by endorsing Richard Nixon in 1974, and was notoriously unfair to his musicians, both economically and emotionally.
But good lord, when the man was on stage, all of the pain he felt in his life away from that stage, all of the failings and all of the lack of self-control, were transcended. Like a shaman in a deep trance, Brown summoned the funk, embraced it, and showered his followers in its sublime logic. And it’s this side of Brown that Gibney’s film chooses to celebrate.
Perhaps there’s a problem lurking beneath this fact. Though one of “Mr. Dynamite’s” present-day interview subjects, lifelong Brown compadre Rev. Al Sharpton, alludes to the reports of domestic abuse, the issue is never explored in detail in the film. There is with Brown the dangerous temptation to praise the genius while ignoring the fallible humanity, and “Mr. Dynamite” does not settle this imbalance. But then, it never pretends to be anything other than it is – a head bowed, on-bended-knee acknowledgment of Brown’s influence on popular music and his significance in the African-American civil rights movement.
Toward that end, “Mr. Dynamite” moves through Brown’s early years at a brisk clip, employing still photos and text to tell the story, and landing for its first ponderous pause in 1964, when Brown basically revealed that he planned to own the world on the T.A.M.I. Show, a concert film also featuring the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. (This was the very show where young Jagger was first exposed to Brown’s stage act, and as he’s confessed repeatedly, his failed attempts to steal Brown’s moves became by default the Jagger style.)
This is some of the most riveting, dynamic and visceral concert performance footage in history. Brown bursts at the seams with a talent that seemingly seeks to explode right out of his frantic frame. The performance is manic, and says more than a thousand cameo testimonials possibly could. But we get testimonials aplenty here, and they help to fill in the blanks.
Jagger reminisces about seeing Brown perform from the balcony of the Apollo Theater in Harlem; Sharpton recalls meeting Brown when he was a 17-year-old, soon-to-be reverend looking for a father figure; Roots drummer Questlove delineates the power of Brown’s “on the one” rhythm, and makes plain the debt owed to Brown’s music by anyone who considers themselves a hip-hop artist; and former Brown sidemen Maceo Parker, Clyde Stubblefield, Pee Wee Ellis, Bootsy Collins and Melvin Parker recall the incredible highs (and occasional lows) that were part and parcel of working for “the hardest-working man in show business.” Later, Public Enemy’s Chuck D. and jazz bassist Christian McBride speak to Brown’s cross-genre influence eloquently.
It’s the bits that detail Brown’s massive impact on the African-American community beginning in the middle ’60s that form the centerpiece of Gibney’s film, however. Footage of Brown performing in Boston shortly after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is seen here for the first time, and Brown’s ability to offer healing through music is displayed in all its glory. This is the James Brown who wrote “I’m Black and I’m Proud” during a time when he was often forced to change clothes in the back of his bus while touring in the “whites only” south – a man who birthed funk from a pride that stood in opposition to a society still besieged by racism. This is the Brown that Jagger and Gibney chose to celebrate, and it’s the Brown we should all remember.